Is Scotland staggering, stuttering, shuffling or marching proudly to her future? Is that question even the wrong question? I once took a bunch of actors up to Dunnet Head – and no I did not throw them off. One of them, obviously overcome by the sheer beauty of the place, squaked “Oh my God, this is where Scotland stops!” “No,” I said to her, “this is where Scotland starts.”
Perception, of course, is everything. Orkney is Orkney. Shetland is Shetland. But Caithness is where Scotland stops and starts as it is the beginning and end of the “mainland”. Or at least it is as good a place as any to look into the soul of the country. It is, after all, the place I know best. The far north of Scotland, on the other hand, is unknown to most Scots. There is one obvious reason for this: the majority of Scots live in the urban belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Which is why I am concerned about the future. How can we plan properly when the majority do not have the information – geographical, cultural or economic – about their country? And at the same time how can we appropriate a sense of identity of and to ourselves in this digital and internet world; a world that sheds identity skins more readily than an agitated onion, that has a capacity for rounding off any jaggy cultural edges? What, to most of us, is local? The shop on the corner? The pub? What if you don’t have a corner, or even a street? What if the nearest pub is twenty miles away? What we need is a matrix of localisms, from Berwick to Berriedale. An inter-connected linkage of communities, each unique, each connected and each one a resistance to the homogenous soup of sameness which is globalisation.
The political system, and the ideas that inform that system, as we have them in Scotland at this minute, do not reach, do not serve these localities. If Scotland is to be habitable, let alone successful, in the future, then this lack of philosophical and political services, as well as social services, has to be addressed. Scotland has always been a thinking nation. We stop thinking and we die. Too often the politicians and planners can only comprehend social models which are urban. 75% of Scotland’s land mass is not populated by urbanites. As a result a significant part of this country is not planned for. The urban social model does not translate to rural Scotland. The majority of our politicians are products of cities and urban environments. This is what interests them. It would be strange if it were not given the arithmetic of the population. But it is detrimental because it is so.
A significant third of the country, for example, is the Highlands and Islands. This area has a larger land-mass than many European countries so it is hardly surprising that social models developed in Edinburgh do not work in North Uist. It would be crazy if they did. Yet they are slapped onto us like a skin. Legislation coming out of Edinburgh and London by extension, concerning education, housing and employment, is having the effect of emptying the rural areas and driving everyone into towns and cities.
The future needs of our nation demands that people are encouraged to stay on the land and, more importantly, work it. In history of many countries shows that if you empty the countryside then the nation becomes vulnerable. Starvation for the majority is just a week or so away. If, for whatever reason, the distribution system to the supermarkets fails, what is going to happen to the majority of the Scottish people?
If the countryside is empty then the majority have nothing to eat. Agriculture and land ownership are not mystical issues. In Caithness we are surrounded by barley fields, tattie parks and shoals of fish. Direct access to these resources is almost totally impossible for local people. We live in an upside down world. Ironically the countryside is filling up with people who can afford to live in it but really have no clue as how to live on it. At the same time the rural landscape is haemorrhaging local people who can’t afford to live in it but who can work it and have done so for generations. Markets for commodities, as they are currently constructed, are not markets at all: what they are is cartels; that means they create a false price and trade on that, but what they do for the most of us is create poverty because they raise the ceiling of wealth so high none of us can actually reach it: in short they make everything over valued and as result manufacture poverty. Poverty is not a sustainable industry.
In essence what we must discuss is the shape of ideas. These shapes are normal fodder for most of us, if unconsciously. Look at the notion of land and property; most people in urban communities do not consider them as vital, but they are. Land ownership in the form of sporting estates, in the Highlands and Islands, is disorganised poverty. What they guarantee is that nothing will change, that nothing, other than to the benefit of the landowner, will happen. Housing has become a form of gambling. For the Highlands and Islands of Scotland all this means is that the majority of young people who cannot afford an over inflated mortgage will leave. The future is bleeding out of the Scottish countryside but it need not be so.
Why is it that Tesco are allowed to land bank – by that I mean buying huge swatches of ground so that Asda or Morrisons cannot build on them – but the Highland Council does not choose to do so for affordable housing? If the local authority bought land and literally gave it to people to build on the price of housing would become at least realistic. The reason is that Highland Council do not do this is that they are not really local democracy, no local authority is. What it has become is a conduit for market forces and in many instances little more than a management consultancy. There is little to stop any local authority in Scotland from giving each young family a home for around £25k. This would cover the cost of construction, materials and services such as water and electricity. What it does not cover is the vastly over inflated price of the land. The ownership of the ground you walk on determines that a few individuals appropriate wealth and the majority do not. Inequality can be measured out in acreages. This is something the urban consciousness does not conceive of. These may be you monuntains in a song but actually as far as Ben Hope and Ben Loyall are concerned they belong to a retired Danish shipping magnate. And why does he own them? Because he can. Scotland is one of the few countries in the world where, if you have the cash, you can buy any amount of land you like. The retired Dane would find it impossible to buy similar chunks of Denmark.
The recent announcement of the shortlist for the £10 million Saltire Prize for the development of renewable marine energy in the Pentland Firth is yet another case of local involvement in the organisation of the future being diminished by a combination of the Crown Estate control of the seabed, multi-national cash clout and the inability of Scottish politicians to see that without direct local involvement and benefit no-one, in the long run, progresses. Much hand wringing has been witnessed in the media form both sets of our glorious leaders on both sides of the border as to the lack of “growth” in the economy. They fail to see that structures which dominate and reward a few will always fail. The real economic growth for Scotland will be in localising all systems of wealth creation and distribution – from electricity to banks – otherwise, referendum result or not – we are going to be independent from nothing. Only when Scotland become interdependent, our people and our communities with resources and opportunities, will she be truly independent.